What’s Wrong with Sufjan’s Letter (And the Not-So-Subtle Danger of Deism)

| Jake LeFave

Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan was one of the first albums I ever bought. It was catchy, upbeat, and interesting, and it dealt with profoundly Christian themes in a non-preachy and creative way. Really, I’ve been a Sufjan fan for as long as I’ve liked music. When an artist is one of your first loves, you pay special attention to what they’re up to in hopes that a new album is on its way. That’s why when I was browsing online articles this morning, I immediately clicked when I saw a link that read, “Sufjan Stevens Statement On Muslim Ban.”

The statement can be summarized thus: America’s rejection of the alien will have devastating “moral, spiritual, and political recompense.” On this point, I don’t necessarily disagree with Stevens. I think he’s right, but I think he gets there from the wrong place. Let me explain: where I believe Stevens’ statement goes wrong is when he attempts to ground this conviction on some sort of spiritual or theological basis. After his introductory paragraph (which, again, contains much to be commended), Stevens writes:

This is not apocalyptic or eschatological hysteria. This is called the laws of physics, the laws of injustice, and the laws of love. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Let’s not mince words here: this is deism. The deist believes that while a Supreme Being created the world, he has left it to run according to certain natural laws and rules. Here, the Creator is the cosmic watchmaker, winding it up and letting it run. It is an intensely impersonal view of God’s involvement in the world, and a view that is found nowhere in Scripture.

Consider the relationship of the Lord to the earth described in Psalm 65:9: “You visit the earth and water it; you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide their grain, for so you have prepared it.” Or Acts 14:17: “…for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” I could go on and on!

As theologian John Frame writes:

But the idea that there is some impersonal mechanism called “nature” or “natural law” that governs the universe is absent from the Bible… Now obviously there are such things as natural forces, like gravity and electricity… But it is plain that in the view of the biblical writers any impersonal objects or forces are only secondary causes of the course of nature.

What is true of creation is also true of our lives. Nothing that occurs in the realm of human history is due to “the laws of injustice,” or “the laws of love,” or even “karma” for that matter. God is sovereign over every little event of human history:

The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
The counsel of the Lord stands forever,
the plans of the heart to all generations. (Psalm 33:10-11)

When we speak to our communities about the dangers and immorality of turning away the sojourner, contrary to what Stevens might think, we need to do so with an apocalyptic and eschatological vision in mind.

Jesus is coming back. Karma is not coming to get you. The law of love or the law of injustice is not going to turn on you. The personal God revealed most gloriously to us in Jesus Christ is returning. The personal God who has had his hand in every part of this world, from the watering of the fields to the election results, is coming to redeem what is rightfully his. And it is only when we grasp this eschatological vision, this future reality, that we’ll be able to live as faithful witnesses to our Lord Jesus now.

The King who is returning gloriously is the same King who was born into anonymity and with refugee status. Faithfully bearing witness to him is to fight for justice, to defend the oppressed, and to give a voice to the voiceless. For the deist, though, this work is ultimately self-serving—a way to avoid the hammer when the cosmos is balancing itself out. Not so for the Christian. In receiving freely the gift of salvation won for us by Jesus at so much cost, we are gratefully compelled to live here and now as those who offer to others what was graciously given to us.

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What’s Wrong with Sufjan’s Letter (And the Not-So-Subtle Danger of Deism)

Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan was one of the first albums I ever bought. It was catchy, upbeat, and interesting, and it dealt with profoundly Christian themes in a non-preachy and creative way. Really, I’ve been a Sufjan fan for as long as I’ve liked music. When an artist is one of your first loves, you pay special attention to what they’re up to in hopes that a new album is on its way. That’s why when I was browsing online articles this morning, I immediately clicked when I saw a link that read, “Sufjan Stevens Statement On Muslim Ban.”

The statement can be summarized thus: America’s rejection of the alien will have devastating “moral, spiritual, and political recompense.” On this point, I don’t necessarily disagree with Stevens. I think he’s right, but I think he gets there from the wrong place. Let me explain: where I believe Stevens’ statement goes wrong is when he attempts to ground this conviction on some sort of spiritual or theological basis. After his introductory paragraph (which, again, contains much to be commended), Stevens writes:

This is not apocalyptic or eschatological hysteria. This is called the laws of physics, the laws of injustice, and the laws of love. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Let’s not mince words here: this is deism. The deist believes that while a Supreme Being created the world, he has left it to run according to certain natural laws and rules. Here, the Creator is the cosmic watchmaker, winding it up and letting it run. It is an intensely impersonal view of God’s involvement in the world, and a view that is found nowhere in Scripture.

Consider the relationship of the Lord to the earth described in Psalm 65:9: “You visit the earth and water it; you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide their grain, for so you have prepared it.” Or Acts 14:17: “…for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” I could go on and on!

As theologian John Frame writes:

But the idea that there is some impersonal mechanism called “nature” or “natural law” that governs the universe is absent from the Bible… Now obviously there are such things as natural forces, like gravity and electricity… But it is plain that in the view of the biblical writers any impersonal objects or forces are only secondary causes of the course of nature.

What is true of creation is also true of our lives. Nothing that occurs in the realm of human history is due to “the laws of injustice,” or “the laws of love,” or even “karma” for that matter. God is sovereign over every little event of human history:

The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
The counsel of the Lord stands forever,
the plans of the heart to all generations. (Psalm 33:10-11)

When we speak to our communities about the dangers and immorality of turning away the sojourner, contrary to what Stevens might think, we need to do so with an apocalyptic and eschatological vision in mind.

Jesus is coming back. Karma is not coming to get you. The law of love or the law of injustice is not going to turn on you. The personal God revealed most gloriously to us in Jesus Christ is returning. The personal God who has had his hand in every part of this world, from the watering of the fields to the election results, is coming to redeem what is rightfully his. And it is only when we grasp this eschatological vision, this future reality, that we’ll be able to live as faithful witnesses to our Lord Jesus now.

The King who is returning gloriously is the same King who was born into anonymity and with refugee status. Faithfully bearing witness to him is to fight for justice, to defend the oppressed, and to give a voice to the voiceless. For the deist, though, this work is ultimately self-serving—a way to avoid the hammer when the cosmos is balancing itself out. Not so for the Christian. In receiving freely the gift of salvation won for us by Jesus at so much cost, we are gratefully compelled to live here and now as those who offer to others what was graciously given to us.